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New Spy Wars: How China and Russia Use Intelligence Agencies to Undermine America

The Cold War never ended. That, at least, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s view. The clearest indication that the Kremlin continued its titanic struggle against the West even after the Soviet Union collapsed can be seen in the activities of Russia’s security and intelligence services.

In their operations and in the vast power they wield in Russian society, they have picked up where Soviet intelligence left off. Since 1991, these agencies have been driven by a revanchist strategy to make Russia great again and to overturn the post–Cold War U.S.-led international order. Putin’s war in Ukraine is the bloody conclusion of that strategy.

China is also seeking to reverse the outcome of the Cold War. With the “no limits” alliance proclaimed on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Putin and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, are attempting to upend the international system—and they are leaning heavily on their intelligence organs to do so.

Spy agencies can do what other branches of government cannot: execute non-avowed foreign policy. Both Russian and Chinese intelligence have done so in the furtherance of their revisionist goals, taking advantage of the United States while it was distracted by the “war on terror” to damage U.S. national security, undermine Western democracies, and steal as many scientific and technical secrets as possible. 

All the Tsar’s Men

Russia’s intelligence services view themselves as the direct heirs of the KGB. Although the KGB was disbanded in 1991, many of its former officers and all of its tradecraft, files, and even agents in the West were transferred to Russia’s new security service, now known as the FSB, and foreign intelligence service, the SVR.

For years after the end of the Cold War, Russian intelligence continued to run former Soviet agents in the West, including the CIA counterintelligence official Aldrich Ames and the FBI agent Robert Hanssen. It was business as usual for Russia.

The SVR’s first director, KGB veteran Yevgeny Primakov, continued the Soviet intelligence agency’s traditions of coercion and blackmail—tactics that he himself had fallen victim to as a young man. According to material smuggled from the KGB’s archives, Primakov had been blackmailed into serving the agency while working as a journalist in the Middle East in the 1960s.

The founding father of the FSB, Rem Krassilnikov, was also a former KGB officer and communist true believer; his wife was named Ninel, which is Lenin spelled backward. According to an FSB defector who worked under Krassilnikov in the 1990s, the FSB used the same training manuals as the KGB, but with the ideological sections about communism simply ripped out.  

Then there is Putin himself, whose experience in the KGB’s foreign intelligence directorate profoundly shaped his subsequent political career. While stationed in Dresden in East Germany—a KGB sideshow, since the real action was in East Berlin—Putin witnessed the Soviet empire’s disintegration firsthand.

It was, as he later said, the greatest catastrophe of the twentieth century. Putin calls himself a “Chekist,” in honor of the early Soviet secret police, the Cheka, and had a statue of Cheka founder Felix Dzerzhinsky in his office when he was the FSB director.

To this day, Putin walks with the gunslinger gait of an FSB man, left hand swinging but right hand motionless next to an invisible side arm, to let everyone know he’s trained. Like many Russians, Putin has suffered from something like phantom limb syndrome ever since the Soviet Union collapsed.

As a result, in the 1990s, it took little to convince him that NATO was by definition hostile to Moscow. Soviet intelligence used to call the United States “the main enemy”—and once the main enemy, always the main enemy.

In the 1990s, Russia’s intelligence services were, if anything, more aggressive toward the United States than the KGB had been in the later Soviet period. Nothing breeds aggression like humiliation. By the end of the 1990s, the SVR was using the Internet to spread disinformation to discredit the United States.

SVR officers stationed in the United States bombarded U.S. media outlets and messaging boards with themes straight from the Soviet propaganda script, including the U.S. government’s secret racist agenda and its illegal development of biological weapons.

Sometime around 1996, Russian hackers instigated a massive breach of sensitive U.S. government databases, including those of NASA and the Pentagon.  U.S. intelligence was not sitting on its hands, of course.

As Russia’s economy tanked in the late 1990s, the CIA was able to reel in some valuable Russian recruits who betrayed—for cash—their spymasters and blunted Moscow’s intelligence operations against the West. But then came 9/11.

Blinded by the Fight

At first, it seemed that the war on terror might be a chance for a reset, an occasion for greater U.S.-Russian intelligence cooperation.After his first meeting with Putin in 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush famously remarked that he had been “able to get a sense of his soul” and believed him to be trustworthy.

Russia’s intelligence services did initially cooperate with the United States on counterterrorism. But according to CIA officials, the U.S.-Russian intelligence honeymoon after 9/11 was short-lived, giving way to an era of clandestine Russian aggression.

Meanwhile, Washington was looking the other way. Throughout the war on terror, the U.S. government plowed overwhelming resources into counterterrorism at the expense of efforts to deal with threats from resurgent powers such as Russia and China.

So did many U.S. allies, including the United Kingdom. According to a 2020 report by its parliamentary intelligence and security committee, the British security service MI5 devoted a staggering 92 percent of its work to counterterrorism in 2006.

This was the same year that a former FSB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, was assassinated in London with radioactive polonium. Later, a British public inquiry found that Putin himself had probably approved the murder, as had then FSB head Nikolai Patrushev, another KGB veteran who now sits on Putin’s national security council.

There is no corresponding public data on how U.S. intelligence agencies divided their attention and resources between counterterrorism and other priorities after 9/11, but U.S. intelligence officers I interviewed said that counterterrorism was the overwhelming focus of the U.S. intelligence community.

As late as 2017, counterterrorism was still the top budget item for the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Putin’s genius was to obscure from Western powers after 9/11 that although he was cooperating on counterterrorism, he was also using his intelligence services to solidify his authoritarian regime and make Russia into a great power again.

At home, he silenced dissent, crushed the free press, and eliminated his opponents, following the Stalinist tradition of “no man, no problem.” In Russia’s near and far abroad, Putin sought to prevent the expansion of NATO and contain what he saw as U.S. subversion in eastern Europe by invading Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and the rest of Ukraine in 2022.

NATO expansion fed Putin’s fears about Western subversion, but it is fanciful to suppose that without enlargement of the alliance Russia would have been a peaceful or responsible player in global politics. Putin has run Russia as a militarist mafia regime. Since coming to power three decades ago, Putin has made Russia’s security and intelligence services into a virtual state within a state.

He relies on a clique of Chekist siloviki, or “men of force,” who have intelligence and military backgrounds and who wield disproportionate influence in his police regime. According to CIA insiders, an overwhelming majority of the Kremlin technocrats who run Russia’s economy had such backgrounds in 2020.

It is little wonder, then, that Russia’s strategy and tactics are straight from the Soviet playbook, albeit updated for the cyber-age. Social media and digital interconnectivity provide new means for older ends, giving Russia’s spy services capabilities that the KGB could only have dreamed of. Putin has used a variety of covert actions to subvert his opponents in the West.

He has interfered in Western democratic elections, most strikingly in the U.S. presidential election in 2016, preserving a Soviet tradition stretching back to at least 1948. Putin has also kept alive the Soviet practice of deploying deep cover “illegals” in Western countries, some of whom have been arrested and traded back to Moscow in spy swaps that resemble those of the last century’s Cold War.

Although Putin has encouraged the notion that he is a master spy, in reality he has presided over a succession of intelligence failures. In 2010, for example, the FBI and CIA wound up a network of Russian illegals in the United States.

They did so by recruiting a key officer inside the SVR’s illegals program who fed Washington secrets. But Putin’s greatest intelligence failure preceded his decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. U.S. and British intelligence agencies successfully pieced together Putin’s war plans and exposed them to the world, thereby removing his ability to concoct pretexts for the invasion.

If it ever becomes possible to see the intelligence that Putin was given in the lead-up to the war in Ukraine, it would not be surprising to find that it confirmed, rather than contradicted, his overestimation of Russia’s military strength. There is little room for truth telling in Putin’s court, just as there was in Stalin’s.

The murderous nature of Putin’s rule guarantees that he is given sycophantic intelligence. Since the start of the war, Russian intelligence has suffered a series of operational failures, including the dismantling of its spy networks in Norway, Sweden, and Slovenia.

Not Just Any Old Spy Service

Like Russia, China also exploited the U.S.-led war on terror to advance its interests. According to CIA officers with deep China expertise, Beijing’s principal civilian intelligence service, the Ministry of State Security, declared war on U.S. intelligence in 2005.

From then on, while Washington was consumed by the war on terror, the MSS threw its best resources and officers at the U.S. government and U.S. corporations, stealing as many scientific and technical secrets as possible to bolster China’s economy and its military power.

Internal MSS deliberations from this time were marked with glee that the United States was mired in the Middle East and inattentive to China’s clandestine successes. The MSS’s assault on the United States soon paid off.

In 2010, the Chinese spy agency dismantled a major CIA network in China, leading to the murder or imprisonment of more than a dozen U.S. sources, according to an investigative report published by The New York Times.

It remains unclear exactly how Chinese intelligence compromised the CIA network, but the damage was undeniable. Ten years later, a U.S. intelligence official with firsthand knowledge of these events told me that the CIA had still not recovered in China.

Since Xi came to power, China’s intelligence offense against the West and the United States, in particular, has grown exponentially. The mission of Chinese intelligence is to execute Xi’s grand strategy: to make China into the number one military and economic power in the world and invert the existing technological landscape, making other countries dependent on Chinese technology instead of American technology.

Chinese spy services employ a “whole of society” approach to collecting intelligence: they hoover up human, cyber, and signals intelligence (using balloons and apparently an eavesdropping base in Cuba) while also exploiting publicly available sources, including social media.

Through a series of draconian national security laws passed under Xi, the Chinese Communist Party also compels Chinese businesses to cooperate with intelligence agencies whenever requested, thus fusing spying and buying. The result is a Chinese mercantilist authoritarian model without parallel in the West.

The CCP uses talent programs and cultural exchanges for espionage by another name. Beijing also exploits Chinese communities in Western countries, pressuring them to pass on intelligence, often by blackmailing them or threatening family members in China.

Under Xi, China has become the world’s principal cyberthief, stealing more personal and business data from Americans than every other country combined, according to the FBI. In 2021, the FBI reported that it was opening a new China-related counterintelligence investigation every 12 hours. And in July 2023, the United Kingdom’s parliamentary intelligence and security committee reported that the Chinese government has penetrated every sector of the British economy.

Phrases such as “U.S.-Chinese competition” do not do justice to the ugly reality. Like Russian intelligence agencies, Chinese intelligence services compete according to fundamentally different rules from those followed by their Western counterparts. Unlike U.S. or European spy agencies, the MSS is not subject to the rule of law or to independent political oversight.

Nor is the MSS publicly accountable to Chinese citizens or scrutinized by a free press. These differences mean that statements such as “all states spy,” often used to discount Chinese espionage, are dangerously misleading.

Just because all armies have guns does not mean they are the same. Unlike Western services, there are few meaningful restraints on Chinese or Russian intelligence agencies. In fact, Chinese and Russian services are limited only by operational effectiveness—what they can get away with. Western governments and publics need to wake up to this threat.

Old Grudges, New Weapons

During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union industrialized intelligence collection, using computers to attack each other’s cryptology. Spying moved from on land, deep under the sea, into the stratosphere, and then even into space.

Today, Western governments are in a new cold war with Russia and China that is again transforming the nature of espionage. This new cold war is not a repeat of the last one, but it does have continuities and similarities, including a stark asymmetry in the East-West intelligence conflict.

It was colossally difficult for Western clandestine services to collect reliable intelligence on closed police states behind the Iron Curtain; now it is even more difficult for them to operate effectively in Russia or China, with their Orwellian domestic surveillance systems.

Meanwhile, it is relatively easy for Russia and China to steal secrets from the open, free, and democratic societies of the West, just as it was for the Soviets before them.

But the similarities between this superpower conflict and the last one should not blind us to their differences. China’s massive economic weight and integration into the global economy differentiate it from the Soviet Union. Today’s information landscape is also much different from that of even the recent past.

Commercial satellite companies, for example, now offer capabilities that until recently would have been the preserve of governments. Open-source and commercial intelligence are transforming national security. In the last Cold War, approximately 80 percent of U.S. intelligence was derived from clandestine sources while 20 percent came from open sources.

Today, those proportions are thought to be reversed. The future of Western intelligence lies not with governments but with the private sector. The challenge for Western governments is to harness the capabilities of commercial intelligence providers. This will require new public-private partnerships.

What Western governments need more than anything, however, is imagination when it comes to intelligence collection about closed police states. Imagination is what led the CIA to develop high-altitude U-2 planes that were capable of spying behind the Iron Curtain when other methods were impossible.

Similar imagination is needed today in areas at the forefront of national security, including open-source intelligence gathering, the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. These will be the weapons of this century’s cold war—and those that will determine its outcome.

Calder Walton is Assistant Director of the Applied History Project and the Intelligence Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs

Foreign Affairs

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